The Million Dollar Bet - Pt. 1
I'm writing this sitting in my car at a rest stop somewhere in the panhandle of Florida. I am reclining in my chair trying to get comfortable, but I can't. I have all my stuff packed into the trunk and back seat. Rain is pelting the windshield, casting speckled shadows on my hands. I'm tired but I can't sleep. I don't know what time it is. Maybe 11, maybe midnight. I haven't been able to sleep well lately. The last few days have been tough.
I wasn't sure how to write about this. I wasn't sure what kind of a story there was to tell, or who really I would be writing a story for. Ultimately I just know that I need to express what I'm feeling and what I've gone through.
I suppose everything began last year. I took a long break from the game; I was away from poker for about 9 months after I got hacked. I was focusing on my own life - on getting healthy in both mind and body, and I was keeping my distance from the world of poker. I would attempt a few times to get my head back into the game, but it just wouldn't stick. I just didn't have that same drive to keep playing the game.
When I went to Vegas for the first time when I was 20 (July 2010), I met a lot of poker players I'd only known online, and one of those players was Jungleman. I found he and I had a lot of perspectives in common and he really admired me. We spent a lot of time hanging out and decided that we might live together at some point later in the year. We settled on going to San Diego around October, and we invited Ashton who we both knew to come live with us. He was going to school and wrestling at the time so he couldn't leave Orlando, but he ended up offering us to both come down to Orlando and live with him. It seemed like a good idea, since all three of us were strong poker players and we were all young.
So we did. Jungleman and I came to Orlando. The three of us spent a lot of time together - playing poker, feeling out the city, being young and stupid. For me this experience was a great opportunity since it was a chance for me to get my head back into the game, to focus, study poker, and to learn from these two really great players. It helped to re-ignite my passion for the game and also get my poker game back on track. I was a lot more mature than the two of them. Both Ashton and Jungle respected me. They would call me the "papa bear" of the house. I looked after them.
It was an interesting relationship between the three of us. But, well, I suppose the real story starts a few days ago.
Doug, a.k.a. WCGRider, had come to spend a week with us in Orlando. Jungle was supposed to be back from Australia on the 4th, but he ended up getting delayed so he wouldn't be back after Doug was gone. So it was just me, Ashton, and Doug.
Ashton had decided to buy some tickets to the Magic-Heat game on Thursday night. He offered me a ticket to the game, but I passed. I didn't feel like going. He ended up taking Doug as well as some other friends.
It was rowdy, they did a lot of drinking, and after the game they went to House of Blues for a concert. Doug later recounted the story to me: he went up to the bar at House of Blues to buy some drinks. Ashton came up to him and said "Hey, don't worry about it man, I'll get the drinks, it's fine."
Doug said, "Nah , don't worry about it. You already bought the tickets, I got the drinks man."
Ashton replied "Well, thanks...
... You know... I feel sad all the time."
Doug looked at him.
"I feel anxious and depressed, and I haven't been happy in a long time." Doug listened with a seriousness amidst this concert at the House of Blues.
"Well man, if you want help, all of us are here and are willing to help you."
He continued, "If you want to get your shit together, you need to stop all the prop-betting, you need to stop all the craziness, you need to just focus on poker, on school, and on your health man. And you can do it. We all know you can."
Ashton smiled at him. "Yeah, you're right. I can do it. I can change." And then the night went on. Ashton ended up leaving with a girl around 3AM. Doug and Ashton's sister who had also gone to the concert ended up driving back to the house by themselves.
Now, I was having trouble sleeping that night. I'm usually the first person awake, but I'd gotten up especially early that morning and ate breakfast. At about 11 I came into the living room and saw Doug sitting on the couch playing poker, and Ashton sitting at his computer. Ashton had only gotten home five or six hours ago, and had slept maybe four hours. He'd drunk quite a lot the previous night. He was on Skype with Justin Smith.
Doug and I watched as Ashton asked him to set up a prop bet with him. The very next morning, after four hours of sleep, Ashton was trying to set up a prop bet with Justin as to whether or not he could run 70 miles in a day. Justin was hesitant to accept - the more Justin hesitated, the higher Ashton raised the odds.
"1-1." "No, no, no..." Justin replied. "Okay, 2-1" "No..." "Okay, 3-1... 3.5-1, because you're my friend." As this went on, Doug and I exchanged looks as if to say - is he really doing this? - Ashton looked at me and said "Haseeb, 3-1 sounds fair right? You'd take this bet at 3-1?" I looked at him incredulously, glanced at Doug, and replied "Uh yeah, 3-1 sounds fair." Ashton turned back to his PC and finally said, "alright man, I just really want to do this run... 5.5-1." Justin simply said, "I'm going to sleep" and hung up. Ashton was visibly frustrated.
He then turned to me and said "Alright, you're booking that right?" And I said "Well dude, I'm not sure that's such a great idea."
"No man, I'm going to do this. I can do 70 miles no problem. I know my body." We discussed it and asked what's the most he'd ever run before. He told us that the most he'd ever run in one stretch was twenty-two miles. Ashton is very athletic; he's a collegiate-level wrestler, he ran cross-country in high school, and he'd run 13 miles just a couple of days prior. He's extremely fit. But he'd never even run a complete marathon in his life. He looked at me and said, "What's the most you can do?" I considered this for a minute.
As I was looking at him I thought to myself... I've been in this situation before. I've seen Ashton make lots of silly prop bets. I've seen him get scammed, burned, taken advantage of countless times, and I've also seen him offer a lot of silly prop bets that weren't in his favor. Every time I've refrained from taking part; refrained from having anything to do with it. I know that he fucks up a lot, and I know that he's a degenerate sometimes. I've known Ashton for years and I've watched him travel down his road. Many times along the way I've tried to stop him, to advise him, to pull him out of harm's way, but ultimately he finds himself there again and again.
I had come to realize that I can't stop Ashton from doing these things. I knew that no matter what I said or did, he was determined to do this prop bet. I know him, I know the frustration and anxiety he's been feeling, and I know the look in his eyes and the resolve in his voice. I thought there was no way that he could run 70 miles. The way I saw it, he was ready to grab a handful of his money and throw it into the wind. I can't save him. I can't stop him.
I replied, "Alright, I can do 70. 70k for your 210."
"Alright, it's booked," he replied. He finished eating his Dunkin' Donuts and ran upstairs to change into his shorts. It was around noon then. We set up the terms of the bet - he was given a span of 24 hours to complete the run. He had to maintain a running speed at all times on the treadmill - any walking or anything below that given speed would not count toward his total. He was free to take as many breaks as he needed. Doug up took a small piece as did another friend, but most of the action was mine.
He scurried off with a spring in his step to the nearby gym to start his running. And so at 12:30 PM on Friday the 4th of February, the bet began.
Doug and I began making phone calls. Anyone and everyone we knew who was knowledgeable about running, who had run marathons, who knew anyone who had run marathons. We asked people if they thought it was possible - some guy who's a collegiate wrestler who used to run cross country in high school, who had never run a complete marathon in his life. The overwhelming consensus that I got was that his chance to win was low, and some pegged it at close to 0%. Everyone who I asked about it was skeptical, and once I told them that he wasn't allowed to walk, I was told it would be close to impossible for somebody without any training in supermarathon running. To top it off... I hadn't mentioned to anyone that he'd been drinking the previous night and had gotten four hours sleep, or that he was offering me 3-1 on the bet.
At that point I thought that if all these people think Ashton can't do it, then there's no way he can win. He thinks he knows his body, but you can't know how your body would respond to that level of physical and psychological stress if you've never been there. He can't know. He can't know what three back-to-back marathons would do to his calves, to his knees, or to his heart. He still had alcohol in his system and had gotten almost no sleep, and I knew that he was feeling anxious. I figured this is Ashton standing in front of the railroad tracks again - this is him sitting at 500/1k heads up against Phil Ivey with his roll, desperate to have something change, for something to rile him up, to feel alive and meaningful again. He wanted to make himself the hero. The way I saw it, there was no way that Ashton could do this.
Doug and I went back and forth from the apartment complex gym where he was running. We brought him Gatorade, power bars, water bottles, and checked up on him to make sure he was alright and watched his progress. His sister decided to spend the day with us (after learning what he was doing), and helped us out ferrying food and drink back and forth. We watched him, kept track of time, and measured up his progress. At that point, it still seemed like just a frivolous spur-of-the-moment bet. I figured that my role was to make sure that Ashton was going to be okay once he got through to the other side - that after he gave up or lost the bet, that he'd be able to get his mind back together and get back on his feet. I knew it'd be hard on him when he lost.
Around 2PM Doug and I went to Ruby Tuesday's to get lunch. While we were eating, we got a text from Ashton saying that he was looking for more action, and that he was going to find other people to buy it up so he could put up 900k of his own money. I remember when he read that text aloud to me, Doug looked at me dumbfounded. We had no idea how to take it. The first thought that came to our minds was that Ashton was self-destructing. That he was putting it all on the line, and wanted all-or-nothing. I remember thinking that the sweat-drenched Ashton, in that musky little gym probably felt happier and more alive running on that treadmill than he had in some time. He had meaning in that moment. He must've felt that every pound of his muscle, every strain of his body had a meaning and clear direction behind it. He knew exactly what he was fighting for, what he was hurting for.
So I texted him, "alright, I'll buy up the rest." He texted back, "Are you sure about this?" "Yeah, I'm sure. My 285k plus the other 15k you have booked makes 300k. Consider it booked."
I thought to myself, he's giving money away. He's not going to stop until he sells off all of that action and puts up 900k of his own money. If I know he's going to throw 600k into the wind, what difference would it make if it were my hand that caught it instead of somebody else's? I mean, that's what poker players do isn't it? They make their plays where the money is. They don't hold grudges. We're just two poker players, playing a game. Whoever wins just made the right decision in that moment, and the loser understands that. It's not personal. Poker isn't personal. Well, it's not supposed to be, anyway.
As we drove back to the apartment complex, Doug and I were reflecting on how bizarre and fucked up the whole situation was. This was the most money I'd ever put on anything like this - I'm not a prop bettor, and the most I've ever bet on something was less than $1,000. It just felt surreal. Just talking about it made it start to feel more and more incredible (in the literal sense of the word). Doug said to me "Well you have to admit, either way, Ashton is a fucking animal."
I replied, "Well, that's true, but we're not betting on whether or not Ashton is an animal. We're betting on whether he can run these 70 miles today."
Once we returned, I caught up with Ashton on his way back to the gym and we spoke briefly. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this, and I told him I was. He said to me, "Why? Do you think that I can't do this? Do you think I don't know my body?"
I chose my words carefully. "I... I just think the odds are too good man. I can't pass up this bet."
He said, "Okay, then if you want to take this action there are two terms you have to agree to. The first is that you think there's a 0% chance that I would cheat. That doesn't mean you think there's a 1% chance that I'd cheat and you'll live with it, but you have to literally think there's a 0% chance I'd cheat you."
"Yeah, I know you're not going to cheat. Don't worry."
He continued, "Alright. The second term is that... this doesn't affect our friendship, even if I win. Or if I lose. We're still friends."
I studied him, thought for a moment and said, "Well, if you lose, are you still going to be friends with me?" "Yeah." "Well, if I lose I'm not going to hate you. So it's fine, we'll still be friends." I patted him on the back, and then we shook hands. Thinking back, it didn't feel like a million dollar handshake. Actually, I'm not sure what that would feel like, haha. I suppose it still didn't feel real. I just figured I'd regret it if instead of me some random poker player out there was 600k richer tomorrow. I kept making what I thought was the right move, but it would take me a while to process the gravity of what I had agreed to.
Ashton returned to the treadmill and started running again. It was 2PM then, and my anxiety was starting to build. I remember telling Doug, "You know, for 70k I could almost be zen about it. Losing 70k would suck, but I'd be alright. I could still focus on other things. But 285k man... the difference between winning and losing... -285k or +855k. This is a million dollar bet. I didn't realize this, but I'm not going to be able to play poker today man. Hell, I'm not going to be able to think about anything else..." He told me, "of course, what did you expect? You've got one hell of a sweat ahead of you man."
Time dragged by slowly. Doug and Ashton's sister continually updated me on his progress every half-hour, and I passed the time calculating Ashton's progress and mileage rate. I spent a lot of the time talking to friends and trying to keep myself grounded. I spoke to a friend of mine (who isn't a poker player) about the bet and he asked me, "So what are you going to do when you win your 850k?" I said, "Well, I don't know if I'm going to win yet. I could lose. But if I do win, I'm probably just going to buy a car and put the rest away." He chuckled. "What, like a hundred thousand dollar car?" And I said, "Nah, probably more like a 30k car." He knows me, and I'm not a flashy person when it comes to money - I live pretty simply, and I prefer it that way. He said to me, "Ah, man. Money is wasted on the rich." I laughed.
Ashton returned to the house several times, complaining that he felt tired a lot sooner than he expected. Around 4PM he curled up on the couch and announced to us that he was going to sleep for a bit. He didn't sleep, and ten minutes later he got up and went back out to run again. At 6PM he returned and announced that he was going to sleep for a few hours in his room. He stayed in his room for ten minutes, told us that he felt energized already, and then was out the door again. Ashton was completely unable to sleep. Doug and I figured that was definitive - he wouldn't be able to win. Without rest, his body wouldn't hold up.
At around 8PM, I spoke to a friend of mine who had some experience in running marathons. I told her the entire story, about how Ashton was feeling out of it, how he was unable to sleep, and that he'd been drinking heavily the night before. She told me with an unexpected graveness - "You guys need to be watching him constantly." I replied, "Well, we're checking up on him every half hour or so, bringing him food and drink and stuff." "No, no, you guys need to be there in case something happens. If he collapses or gets a heart attack, he'll need immediate medical attention. Somebody needs to be there. Like, right now. The likelihood will only go up the longer that kid runs."
Slowly, the realization settled in. I know Ashton, and I know how much heart he has. He's a beast. He'll keep pushing and pushing until the brink of his physical limits. The question was never whether Ashton had the force of will to win this bet, but whether or not his body could withstand it. In reality, I knew that Ashton wouldn't give up. The bet I was making was that Ashton would be physically incapable of going any further. I was betting that Ashton would either: pull a muscle and be unable to run, collapse from exhaustion, damage his joints, or have a heart attack. There was no other way that he would lose.
From that point, Doug and I agreed to watch him constantly, but before we could commit to a vigil Ashton had returned home around 9:30 PM. He said that he was going to sleep again, and this time he was in his room for a while. Doug and I waited around along with Ashton's sister in the living room downstairs. It all felt uneasy. Ashton's sister asked, "Do you guys think he's sleeping?"
Doug told us that he'd seen Ashton earlier when he stepped in to use the bathroom. He said that Ashton was sitting on his bed, just rocking quietly back and forth. "There's no way he'll be able to sleep," he said. "When I did my prop bet, I had to do something like that. It was different, but just like Ashton I had a time constraint and a lot of pressure. I remember I would play and play for hours during the day, and then when I realized I was tired I'd crawl into bed. But when I got into bed, I would stare up at the ceiling and all I could think about was the playing that I could be doing, and I would think about the fact that I wasn't sleeping, and I would get scared that instead of lying here staring at the ceiling I could be playing more hands, and then I'd get up and go try to play again... and when I realized I was too sleepy, I'd go back to bed and try again. The sleep was the hardest part. It's impossible to sleep when you're scared and the adrenaline is rushing. Trust me, Ashton won't be able to sleep."
Ashton's sister asked if there was anything she could do to help him sleep. He shook his head. The story seemed to be getting more and more fucked up the longer it went on. I wasn't expecting any of this. Ashton was going through something truly horrible. Rocking back and forth in that bedroom... all the fear and confusion he must've been feeling... us sitting downstairs waiting for our friend to give in. He was falling behind pace to win the bet. I was supposed to be relieved, but I felt miserable. The entire thing started to feel perverse.
Around 10:30PM his sister told us that Ashton's parents were on their way up here from Ft. Lauderdale, 3 hours away. Doug and I had no idea what to think. According to his sister, he had called his mother and simply told her "You need to come up here. I need your help." His sister had tried to get them to turn around, but they were insistent on driving up. This whole affair started to feel more and more like it was spiraling out of control, and we were now going to have to explain to his parents the whole situation. Doug was taken aback, but I was prepared to tell his parents everything.
It was almost 11:00PM and Ashton was still in his bedroom. He had completed 30 miles of the 70. Midnight would be the halfway point in the bet, and it seemed that he still had not gotten a wink of sleep. At this point, I was positive that the bet was over. Ashton had simply underestimated his own exhaustion. He had not even reached half of the mileage - and the first marathon would be the easiest. There was no way he could run the second and third marathons at a faster pace. I thought my role would be to explain to his parents what all had happened and why. I thought it was over.
Half an hour later, his parents arrived and went straight upstairs to Ashton's room. Doug and I sat in the living room wringing our hands, unsure of what was going to happen. We spoke to each other in quieted voices, almost rehearsing how we were going to explain it to them. Finally, we saw them descending the stairs and taking notice of us in the living room. His mother smiled at me warmly, offered her hand and said "Hi, I'm Julia." I introduced myself, and she walked toward the kitchen to set down her purse. "I can't believe what Ashton's doing," she said perhaps to herself, "I can't believe how reckless he's being... but most of all I can't believe the people who are making Ashton do this."
Doug and I looked at each other. She didn't realize that we were the ones he was betting against. I stepped into the entranceway of the kitchen as she leaned back against a countertop, and announced to her, "well actually Julia. We're some of the people who bet against Ashton. Not only us. We and several others."
The moment she heard me say that, she broke eye contact and tightened her shoulders. Her demeanor changed entirely. She bit her lip as I started to tell the story, from the very beginning... not omitting any details... about how I knew her son, about our relationship, about how the bet began, about what had happened thus far... about how much money was at stake... about the risks he was taking..., and I remember telling her "Ultimately, Ashton called you two here for a reason. He wanted you two to see something. What that is, I can't say, but all I know is that you two need to listen to what he's trying to tell you." I remember feeling confident in my words.
"You say you're his friend Haseeb?" From then on, she didn't speak to me... she spoke AT me. She didn't look me in the eye again. "No, real friends wouldn't put their friends health at risk to try to take his money. You knew exactly what it meant when you bet against Ashton. You're not his friends."
We protested. No, I said, he was going to do this anyway. I couldn't stop him. He was going to do it anyway. I was helping him wasn't I? I was worried about him wasn't I? I was watching over him wasn't I? What difference did it make whether it was my money or someone else's?
"No Haseeb, you two aren't his friends. It's all about money isn't it? That's what you guys want right? That's what you're here for, that's why you're making my son do this?"
No, no. No...
"Right, well your actions say otherwise. Well, Ashton isn't going to do this," she said. "I'm not going to let risk my son's health so that you two can get your payday. He's not going to do this bet."
Well... that's not your call.
"No, it is my call. I said he's not going to do this. There's no amount of money that's worth risking his health for, and if you were his friends you would know that. You two can find me and come to me personally and... I'll figure out how to pay you. But this bet is over. You guys will get your money."
Doug and I looked at each other. I didn't know what to say. She looked at me like I was a complete piece of shit. The parents went back upstairs to check on Ashton again, leaving Doug and I standing in the kitchen. I walked to the living room and sank into the couch.
I knew that as his parents, they were bound to feel that way. There was no other perspective they could have, really... I could see why they would think that we were just scum. I had seen Ashton cheated, ripped off, taken advantage of by countless people before. It would make sense that not knowing the situation, she'd think of me as just another one of those people. Of course she would. But I couldn't shake what they said. It stuck with me, and slowly gnawed at my mind. The memory feels raw. I still remember it.
I'm really tired and have been driving for a long time, so I need to get some sleep so I can get back on the road. I'll finish up this story in a day or two.
Edit: You can find part 2 here: http://www.cardrunners.com/blog/internetpokers/the-million-dollar-bet-pt-2